Two words hold a key to Purim

Two words hold a key to the meaning of Purim, one very prominent in the book of Esther and the other completely absent.

The prominent word is purim itself, which means “lottery” and has been chosen as the name of holiday; it clearly is important but the megilah does not explain why.

What word is absent? Anything to do with God. Esther is unique among the books of the Bible in this regard. A Talmudic commentator interpreted Esther’s name as the Hebrew word “I shall hide,” which God uses in Deuteronomy to indicate temporary abandonment of the Israelites.

How is the notion of a lottery central to the book of Esther? We know that pagan societies saw their Gods as capricious. We learn it in the Greek and Roman myths we’re taught in school, where a God gets peeved over some slight, and before you know it a hero is being ruthlessly pursued.

But in pagan society, it is not only the gods who play dice. People react to this essential meaninglessness through random choices of their own. The ancient Greek ritual with the entrails of a goat is famous. In the Chinese I Ching, divination and spiritual insight are achieved through the random division of yarrow stalks, or the throw of coins. In the book of Esther, Haman and his henchmen determine the date of their planned massacre by drawing lots.

How can the leaders of an empire leave such a crucial matter to a simple game of chance? Remember that God is absent. Lacking a sense of universal justice, the Persians had no principles to guide them.

In ancient myths, the state of the king represents that of the society as a whole. Ahasuerus is the epitome of a monarch and a society out of control, with no sense of where it is going.

The feeling that one is buffeted by unpredictable forces can be tolerated in nomadic, tribal societies. Social groups of one or two hundred people can muddle along on guesswork and impetuousity. But the Persia in the book of Esther is quite different.

The very first verse of Esther stresses that Ahasuerus rules 127 provinces covering a length of 3000 kilometers. Every regal decision is translated into all the languages of the empire and transmitted throughout the territories. Repeated references in the book to the diversity, vastness, and power of Persia remind us of the enormous machinery at the hands of the leaders of the empire. Haman had everything at his disposal except IBM punch cards. In a social structure of this size, irresponsible capriciousness is truly dangerous.

A machinery of this immensity cannot simply stop and be dismantled peacefully. That is why so many people had to die at the end of the book of Esther. Just as the Pharoah’s hard-heartedness led to death of Egyptians’ first-born, Haman’s distortion of a massive social force had tragic consequences.

Reflecting the meaningless of the universe as seen through Persian eyes, the book of Esther is a farce that mocks narrative conventions as much as it does the leaders of Babylonian society. The ribaldry of the megilah is matched by the riotousness of our Purim celebrations. We dress in clothing unsuited to us, consume liberal quantities of alcohol, scream and stamp our feet, and generally carry on at the edge of anarchy. But we come down from Purim aware of how difficult it is for humans to achieve a rational society, much less a just one.

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Andy Oram
4 March 2007

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